Accidental volunteer finds his niche with students
Ernie Laplace planned to volunteer in adult literacy
For the past five years, students in Diane Bonica's kindergarten class at Deer Creek Elementary have known that the volunteer they affectionately call "Grandpa Ernie" was special.
Now everyone knows that Ernie Laplace is special, because he has been named the Tigard-Tualatin School District's Lay Educator of the Year after being nominated by Bonica.
"It was a total surprise," Laplace said. "There was a big banner across the entryway when I came to school one day in May."
Laplace, who lives in the Highlands with his wife Rosie, retired in 2008 and started looking for a place to volunteer.
"I had intended to do adult literacy, and my daughter said, 'There's a school right across the street from you.' I talked to Becky Bard, who was the literacy specialist, and she suggested I volunteer with the kindergartners.
"It was a great opportunity, and I've been at it ever since. It's been more fun than I ever imagined. I do anything that's asked of me.
I am highly impressed with all the teachers here, especially the kindergarten teachers. They are very dedicated and spend extra time with the kids, turning all the kids into winners."
During this past school year, Laplace went to Deer Creek four days a week, spending the first three days in Bonica's class and the fourth day with second-through-fourth-graders, "mostly doing math."
"It's fun to see the kids I first met as kindergartners progress through the grades, and Mrs. Bonica brings in the older kids to be reading buddies to her kindergartners," Laplace said. "She's the one who dubbed me 'Grandpa Ernie.'"
He spends a lot of time working with the kindergartners one-on-one, especially with math and reading, sometimes cajoling them along if they are struggling over a math problem or a new word in reading. He is always encouraging and smiling, making even the most challenged student feel good about making progress.
Laplace also can help out in a crisis. On an afternoon late in the school year, the kids got excited over a spider in the classroom sink, and Laplace calmly picked it up, walked it across the classroom and put it outside on the grass.
"I appreciate the parents who read with their kids all year around and especially over the summer," Laplace said. "It makes such a difference, and Mrs. Bonica has an active website for families to access. She always from the beginning encourages parents to be her partners in working with their kids - it's impressive to see how hard the kids work and how much they get out of school."
According to Laplace, before he retired from working in quality assurance in manufacturing, a friend who volunteered with the Lions told him that volunteers need to treat their work as seriously and responsibly as if it were a paying job, and he has followed that advice to the letter.
"And it's fun too," he said. "Sometimes I feel like a rock star."
According to Bonica, Laplace is a rock star in her eyes. "What would I do without Ernie?" she asked. "He always comes, and he is such a lovely volunteer. Ernie schedules his life around his volunteer work, which we all appreciate. I thank his wife for letting him spend three days a week with another woman and her 27 children.
"He usually comes at 12:05 and gathers the children together. He usually pulls the kids in from recess. It makes it easy for me to create a schedule for him to work with kids individually or in small groups of two or three for 20 minutes or so. He is one awesome man!
Laplace clearly loves being in the classroom with the kids as they ask him questions or show him something during free time.
"Kids are funny," he said. "They have a great sense of humor. I come home with great stories. Being around them makes me feel young, and I learn from them, like I learned what Wii is. I learn about new technology from them because they are all so computer literate."
Laplace is originally from Philadelphia while Rosie is a native Portlander, and they just celebrated their 50th anniversary.
"I would like to encourage everyone to consider volunteering in a school at the beginning of the school year," Laplace said. "The Deer Creek principal put a notice in our Highlands newsletter."
For more information on volunteering at Deer Creek, visit www.ttsdschools.org or call 503-431-4450 after Aug. 12.